My trip to Costa Rica was coming up fast (like in a week!) and although I normally just find accommodation when I arrive somewhere, online booking technology is making that harder and harder to do. Everyone else is getting online and booking everything up before you get there! Also, since I was looking to stay put on this particular trip rather than travel around, I was going to be more choosy about where I stayed and I figured I had better secure my new digs.
I knew I wanted to break up my approximately 2 month trip between two places. I figured I'd go to Santa Elena (Monteverde) because I remember really liking it there 19 years ago (19?!), and I was open to anywhere else for the other half. My budget for the trip was about $30/day for everything; lodging, food, transportation, everything. So the lower I could get my accommodation, the more I'd have to spend elsewhere.
Before Going Mainstream Booking SItesSince I was not already on the road, I didn't have the luxury of utilizing other traveler's recommendations, but that's definitely a great way to find a place to stay. Sure you might just get a bunch of people regurgitating the editor's picks from Lonely Planet, but you might also get some unique gems.
You can also ask the people running your hotel/hostel. Sometimes they have affiliations they can suggest. In El Salvador we asked the man who ran Casa Verde. He made a phone call and we were booked in a place in Suchitoto in a matter of minutes. It turned out to be something we wouldn't have found otherwise and although it was a bit odd (including the large disco balls and blue-eyed Jesus), it was wonderful!
Do a general online search for "budget accommodation in Costa Rica" or "long term rentals in Costa Rica" (if you can stay for at least a month) and see what you find. My search came up with some city-run sites and expat sites that gave links to good value rentals. They didn't happen to work out for this particular trip of mine but I got some good leads.
Other search options include the Thorntree Forum (run by Lonely Planet, it's input from other travelers), Lonely Planet, and Hostelworld although quite honestly I don't find them to be too entirely useful, especially not for longer term stays.
Search the Major Booking SitesIn short, go to the major booking sites, enter your criteria, and look a the map view.
Using VRBO (or Homeaway - same same), Booking.com, and Airbnb (keep in mind that the different sites do have different inventory so it's worth checking more than one site) I started with what would be my ideal place. Why not just try and make it easy on myself and maybe the perfect place will fall in my lap. Yeah, right.
I put in my approximate dates (about 3 weeks for the first of my two places), clicked to have a double bed (this helps filter out dorm room bunkbeds), kitchenette or kitchen facilities, WiFi, I capped the price at $23/night, and for Airbnb I marked "entire place". Oh and for the location, I just put the entire country of Costa Rica.
I actually even searched Panama and large swaths of Mexico just for kicks. I almost changed plans entirely because of one place I found on the beach near Mérida.
Now go to the map view. The map view is awesome! You can zoom into certain regions to see more results and even discover some areas you might not have looked at otherwise. In fact, that's exactly how I found the place where I'm sitting right now. It also makes it easier to rule out places that are too far out of town, on a rocky outcrop instead of sand (satellite view!), etc. If you are on a site that shows the list next to the map, sort by price (duh, we want the cheapest places, right?).
I like Google's map view too but you can only filter by price. But it's worth a search because sometimes you can find places that don't use the booking sites. Other big players include Agoda, Expedia, and TripAdvisor but I only go there to compare prices after I have chosen a place.
Play with FiltersI raised and lowered the price filter and I even played around with looking for a pool, air-conditioning, etc. Why not reach for the stars to see what's out there!
For your initial search, you might want to keep the price filter somewhat high. That way you don't rule out a place that might have a fantastic discount for a week or month stay. Look in the descriptions for discounts. These will also show up when you play with dates (below) IF you choose dates that are not already booked.
Once you have done some extensive searching and have pretty much all the viable candidates memorized, you'll want to remove certain filters like "kitchen facilities" or even "wifi" since not all places properly mark what they provide. The perfect place might be hiding out there because they forgot to check off that they have a kitchen. The problem is that you then have to pick through each new result and see if they do indeed have the thing you un-checked.
P.S. You'll recognize which ones are the new results because you are now familiar with everything in the initial search. ;)
Play with DatesHere's the biggie. Many places will offer a discount for weekly and/or monthly rentals so be sure to try entering a variety of dates. I only wanted a little over 3 weeks but it was so much cheaper to rent for a month even if I ended up leaving early. I'm not kidding you, the total cost was cheaper to pay for 4 weeks (what is considered a month in the rental world) than it was for 3 weeks. In fact, the 3 week price was totally out of my budget.
If you're looking to book 6 days, try entering 7 and see what kind of discount you get. If you are looking at 3+ weeks, enter 4 weeks and compare prices then. I have seen nightly rates drop in half for a 4 week rental!
If you're flexible with your dates, choose a date way in the future that is likely not yet booked or change your dates to just a few days. That way you can keep from having a place not show up in the results because they already have a booking that overlaps the original dates you entered. Then if you find a place you like, look at their availability calendar and choose the dates that work for you.
I did this when searching in Santa Elena and got a result for a place that didn't show when I put my actual dates. It turned out there was only a 1 day overlap with a current reservation they had. I adjusted my dates by one day and was thrilled.
Other TipsRead Reviews
Read reviews. Obviously the most recent are the most valid. Reviews can reveal anything from the rare comfy bed to location benefits to internet speed. If internet is important to you, you can even write to the manager and ask for a screenshot of a WiFi speed test. Some places say they have WiFi but it's either slow or only in the lobby. That's a deal breaker for me.
Check Other Booking Avenues
Not always, but sometimes you can get a better deal if booking directly with the owner. Or even on another site. Look at the name of the place and search for it online. Maybe even the name of the owner or anything else that might clue you in to where to find it online outside of the booking site. I say this because on sites like VRBO, they do not give any outside contact information, website, or anything like that. The place where I am now is listed as $110/night one one site, but is $75/night on Airbnb, $35/night for a week, and $21/night for a month!
If you find a place that speaks to you, don't hesitate. Secure that baby. Even in the off season in Costa Rica, I almost lost out on the place I was most excited about, and I DID lose out on another one I procrastinated (me? big surprise) too long.
BUT don't lose all hope if your place does book up. The studio I found in Santa Elena (it was perfect and was available for my dates) no longer showed up in the search results. Someone had booked 2 nights in the middle of when I wanted to be there! Kicking myself, I contacted the owner with my sob story. To my happy surprise they said no problem - the other reservation was only tentative. So we gave them the boot and I got my studio. :) This might be a rare case but still.
Put Your Time In
Yeah, I know, it's a lot. Sometimes it's frustrating and sometimes it's fun. Trust me, I spent a LOT of time on this but I DO find just the right place.
You really don't even have to do all of this like I do. I really think the main points are using the map view, changing up a few filters, then comparing to other places online once you've picked a place. Happy searching!!